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Snake handling in Jolo

Updated on March 5, 2014

or How I spent my summer vacation in Jolo with Snakes

I do not know why I felt compelled to see this religious service. I have not gone to church in years; however, from time to time since I attended Marshall University in Huntington, WV, I've thought about snake handling churches.

Back in the day the world was not as connected as it is now. My dorm friends had told me about these 'crazy' Holiness snake handling churches, adding that with my Long Island accent, I would not be welcome. In fact, there were whole counties I should not set foot in because I would be shot.

Fast forward many years and thoughts of these services come to mind. I search all over the internet to find out where a snake handling Penticostal church might be located. There is not much info, but it seems there's one in Jolo, WV.

I enlist my 23-yr old son for this adventure and he is not thrilled, but agrees. I find a telephone number for the church but do not call. My heart is set on this and I don't want someone to tell me strangers are not welcome.

The drive from Huntington is an adventure in itself and I wish where was a dashboard cam to record driving in mountain country. It mapquested as 3 hours, but took 6. Okay, we got lost three times, but the hairpin turns and lack of guardrails on these mountain peaks (unbelievable!) make it memorable. I truly cannot believe people drive these roads every day.

We are utterly lost and I'm having a meltdown because (1) I think service begins at 7:30, and we might have come all this way only to miss it, and (2) they might shoot us if we do make it.

We stop at the only store in miles and ask if they know of the Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following. No. We ask if there is a snake handling church nearby. Oh yeah! They call up the pastor and ask if service is today. Yes it is and, by the way, one of the men got bit last Wednesday.

We receive directions - it's not far - and drive up the hill. I had changed into a long dress, stockings and toe-covered shoes in the store as I did not want to be disrespectful. My son is wearing black slacks and a white button-down. We park and, suddenly, I'm too scared to go in.

I muster up some courage and head inside, asking if it would be okay to attend services. A man kindly greets us, shakes our hand and instructs us to sit near the back. More people arrive and one places a wooden box in front of the altar. Poisonous copperheads are in it. Others enter - people and snakes.

I really want to understand this and open up my mind to it. Electric guitar, organ and drums accompany singing by the pastor and other preachers. Men approach the front and begin to dance. The preaching continues. For hours. The music is hypnotic, pounding, and I'm tapping my foot and swaying from side to side like I'm in a trance.

The women get up and dance, twirling around and around. No one dances together; they are all individuals experiencing their God. One man starts feeling the Spirit and opens up a box. He holds the snake while dancing and it slowly undulates with the music. Others pick up copperheads, rattlesnakes and various poisonous serpents, the music gets louder, I'm swaying harder, and the entire scene is mesmerizing.

I think the part that people find hard to believe is that there are no antidotes in the church. If someone gets bitten by a snake, they do not rush to the hospital for treatment. If they drink strychnine and get deathly ill, Jesus decides what happens. One must have great faith to take such a chance with life. Many in the congregation have been bitten and some have died. Only a few states still allow snake handling churches to operate. It is a matter of tradition, faith and dedication to the Signs in the Bible that keep these practices alive.

I had wanted to take photos during the service but did not want to show any disrespect. We did not go to gawk at them, but rather to try to understand. As we leave, everyone speaks with us, including the pastor. They invite us back to homecoming, but it is too far and we know we cannot make it. They are a wonderful, welcoming group who believe strongly in the religion they have been brought up in - like most families. We wish each other well, and promise to be back.

It's six months later and I'm still thinking about it.

Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following in Jolo, WV (Photo: Nance Carter)
Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following in Jolo, WV (Photo: Nance Carter)

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Mark 16:17-18

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

With signs following

I tweeted these passages on 2/9/10 as a story. Follow me on twitter: @goneonvaca

6 hrs driving up, down & around mountains all day - crazy hairpin turns w/no guardrail. lost 3X, map is of no help, dark thoughts creep in.

i'd always wanted to see the snakes but never did. told i would not be welcome. wait 30 yrs & think, screw it,why not? drag my son into it.

i'm panicky because i don't want to be late & i may be sending us to our deaths. most of the ride i'm worrying if this is a huge mistake.

i don't even know if it's happening today. typical me, i didn't want to call & hear no, you're not welcome so i don't call & just show up.

stop for directions @ only store around and find it's just up the road, today is the day, and someone got bit 4 days ago. here we go...

get there early because she says Honey the closest motel is an hour away. We enter & are greeted. i almost drop on the floor with relief.

i notice the boxes on the floor in front. service starts - preaching w/elec guitar, organ, drums. sampson, don't let delilah cut your hair.

frenzy - music is loud, men dancing, women spinning, clapping, singing. wild, out of control. i love it. rocking tapping swaying, me. mesmerized.

i recognize an old spiritual the Stones did. if only they wouldn't preach so much! everyone is almost in a trance. one man reaches down...

this is why we're here. the snakes come out & are picked up in ecstasy. music is thundering, Spirit is here, signs are followed & fervor rises.

alas, no strychnine will be drunk today but i am already intoxicated. there's no antidote on hand - that's the whole point. mark 16:17-18

before we leave, a gift - we are asked back. i want to understand. keep thinking about it & want to return. How I spent My Summer Vaca - Follow the signs.


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    • profile image

      Rev. Justin Fletcher 6 years ago

      i am a serpint handler and my grandmaw is the oldest member fill free to call me for any thing i will let u no what's going on 276-245-3994

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      Wv 7 years ago

      This practice goes back for generations. Thank you for writing so honestly.

    • profile image

      Goneonvaca - author 7 years ago

      We attended summer 2009 and believe homecoming was sometime around the 2nd weekend of Sept; check before you make the trip. You can google the map. That's what I did - did not have definite directions, and found it.

      Would love to attend this year 2010. If anyone is going pls write in Comments. If the drive wasn't so hairy, I'd definitely go.

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      uprightbrother 7 years ago

      I would like to attend the homecoming service this year, just need to know the date and time. GOD BLESS YOU and YOURS!!

    • profile image

      crystal 7 years ago

      is the church still there. and if so, can anyone give me some contact info. the ones i have tried are no longer in service

    • goneonvaca profile image

      goneonvaca 7 years ago

      Rev. Southern, we attended the service with open hearts and minds, and talked long afterwards about how nice everyone was. i wish we could have chatted longer but i was nervous about getting out of the mountains in the dark; it had been a long day. the faith of these people amazes me and we felt bad when told how some of the community have treated them. when you see Rev. Payne, please give him our regards. i may have the opportunity to travel to WV again this year, and hope we would once again be welcome.

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      Rev Southern 7 years ago

      I go down to Jolo sometimes and preach, and help with music. It is a wonderful church. Yes I take up serpents with them. Its the word and I got to do it.

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      Barbara T. 8 years ago

      I also heard about the church service with the snakes. But hearing it from your perspective was fascinating. It was so interesting, great job.

    • goneonvaca profile image

      goneonvaca 8 years ago

      teri, my dear friend, you are probably the one who told me about the churches while we were at Marshall. how about homecoming 2010?

    • profile image

      Carol Hilker 8 years ago

      What a crazy and awesome story. Wow.

    • profile image

      Teri Olsen 8 years ago

      Wow! Thanks for the story and video - you are VERY brave!

    • profile image

      PraiseFromTheBasement 8 years ago

      Awesome article! I love this kind of thing. More please!